Feature: College Admissions: The New Rules of Getting In

Stressed about whether your kid can claw her way into Penn? Or Swarthmore? Or ’Nova? Relax. With the college-application landscape changing fast, local admissions pros share the latest secrets about how to play the game.

The same wooing lies behind the new phenomenon of academic “likely letters.” Thanks to the Common Application, a single online form accepted by more than 400 top U.S. colleges and universities, high-school seniors today are applying to more and more schools, says Maureen Mathis, executive director of undergrad admissions and marketing at St. Joe’s: “They’re trying to get the odds up, or they haven’t narrowed their choices down.” This makes colleges crazy. “We had a girl last year who’d applied to 21 different schools,” says Merritt. “That’s 21 different essays, 21 sets of recommendations.” And if she was smart, she was telling every school it was the one she wanted most to attend.

The Ivies have for years sent out “likely letters” prior to the official spring acceptance date to let prized athletic recruits know they’re (wink, wink) likely to be admitted. But now they’re sent to top academic recruits as well, in a preemptive tug on those students’ heartstrings: We like you! We really like you! We like you more than those other guys do! Penn sent 200 likely letters this past spring, up from 120 the spring before. It’s all part of schools’ continued revamping of the rules.

The fever pitch of competition, though, remains concentrated on those 20 institutions that all admissions officers, from Ivy League to community college, say they wish students and their parents would see past, if only to let some steam out of the pressure cooker. The push to get your kid into the most prestigious school possible, says Black, “puts a negative spin on what should be an exciting time in a child’s life, when he or she is thinking about what to learn, where to live, what to do.” And the narrow focus blinds applicants to their options. “There are 3,000 institutions out there,” says Karin Mormando, Temple’s director of undergrad admissions. “We wish kids would see the whole universe.” DiFeliciantonio likens colleges to churches: Both have higher callings, but both need bodies in the pews to remain solvent. “Churches don’t tend to reject you,” he says, “and neither do we. We’re happy to have most kids.”

You have more control than you think.

Temple’s Bill Black began his admissions career at his alma mater, Northwestern University, in Illinois. “We’d regularly speak in hotel ballrooms to 500 families of prospective students at a time,” he recalls. “To get them to understand the admissions process, I’d tell them that when they send their applications in, they go into a dark room with no lights on, where people wearing visors sort through them randomly. We played to their worst fears that college admissions is an arbitrary and subjective process. Then we’d explain what really happens, and you could see the anxiety in their faces fading as they realized: The process is a reasonable one.”